“Go below. I need you to supervise loading.”
I snapped off a quick salute to Commander M’Ba, and rose from my station to head for the hatch. “And make sure they don’t shit all over my ship, mister,” growled M’Ba from behind me. I paused at the hatch, decided that he didn’t need or expect an answer, and ducked my head to climb through.
The corridor was narrow. Everything was narrow. Angstrom Local Fleet Unit LT-1082 was the official name for the pile of ship Commander M’Ba was so proud of. The rest of us just called it the Garbage Scow. I nearly had to turn sideways to fit my shoulders down the corridor, and I kept my head ducked to keep from slamming it into the ducts and pipes and conduits that snaked in and around each other along the overhead. Every few meters, a dim square of panel lighting shone a feeble glow on the stained decks and bulkheads.
Why not let them shit on the ship? Everyone else had.
Someone was coming the other way, interrupting my thoughts. This was the only way around the Scow, from bow to stern, the only passage that connected the ship’s various sections. I pressed myself against the bulkhead, turning my back to the corridor as was our custom, and Ensign Tsiba did the same, a half-smile on her face, just barely showing her pearl-white teeth.
“Lieutenant,” she said, squeezing past me. I tried not to notice her shapely rear end brushing against my own. No point in making trouble for myself.
“Ensign,” I said. I turned to watch her go—a mighty fine ass it was—and then called out, “The Boss is in a mood.”
“Thanks,” she said, stopping for a moment to look back at me. I couldn’t tell if her smile widened in the dim light. Maybe.
I kept moving. The Boss, that was what we called the Commander, when he wasn’t around. Otherwise, it was “Sir!” or “Commander!” Or “Asshole,” as the occasion called for it. More often than not. Only another year on this assignment, I reminded myself for the fifth time that day. I was keeping track. So far, I’d reached as high as twenty in one day, but this one had only just begun and promised to be a slog through knee-high shit, so I was betting on a record.
I turned through the hatch into the docking and receiving bay, saw the crewman there—what was his name? Olbert?—quickly shove a smoke into his pocket. Hopefully, the idiot’s pants wouldn’t catch fire. “You alone?” I asked him.
“Yep,” he said.
“Sir,” I reminded him, trying to scowl. I didn’t really care, but if he pulled this in front of the Boss, I’d be the one catching hell for it.
“Sir,” he said sullenly. The crewman—it was Olbert, wasn’t it?—wiped a hand across his mouth. “Sir, I am the only person present, excepting yourself, sir.”
“Thanks, I got that,” I muttered. “Docking systems on?”
“Aye,” he said, turning to walk to the docking controls. Then he glanced at me over his shoulder and said, “Sir.”
“Belay that nonsense,” I growled. “Anything on the scope yet?”
“No, sir,” he said, in a more normal tone. Would this catch, or would he and his buddies leave me a surprise when I racked in for the night? Only one more year.
I stepped to the com, flicked the switch, and said, “Bridge.” The computer—calling it an A.I. would be an insult to my father and brothers, who built the real thing—connected me. “This is Brenner, Commander,” I said. “No sign of the shuttle.”
“ETA five minutes, Brenner,” snapped M’Ba. “Regontse’s in Hold Two. That’s where you’ll take ‘em, once you make sure they’re clean.” Regontse was the ship’s mechanic—good man, but calling him an engineer was pushing it.
“Clean, sir?” I didn’t have any damned showers down here.
“No weapons!” barked M’Ba. “No bombs, no stunners, no god-damned brass knuckles, Brenner!”
“Understood, sir,” I said hastily.
“Damn well better be,” he growled. I could almost taste the hate on my tongue, burning there like spit-up, pure bile. He cut the channel before I could.
For a moment, we stood there in silence, Crewman Olbert and I, not looking at each other. The crewman was fidgety, obviously itching for the smoke he’d pocketed. I sniffed the air, but couldn’t detect anything. Had to be baby’s breath, then, colorless, odorless, and hard-wired directly into the brain’s pleasure centers. Hopefully Olbert wasn’t so strung out he’d crash the shuttle into us.
“Lieutenant?” he said, finally, succumbing to the need to be doing something, anything other than reaching into his pocket and fishing out his smoke. “Where’re these cattle from?”
“Refugees, Olbert,” I said. Cattle. Damned enlisted brats, never a day of hardship under their belts, calling women and children cattle. Idiots. “They’re from Grosset, I think.”
“I heard of that place,” said Olbert, a shaking hand reaching up to scratch his flaky scalp. “Civil war, right? For what, fifty years?”
“On and off again,” I said, nodding. Grosset was famous, in a way, as the worst hell-hole in the PARC, though it hardly qualified as part of the Cooperative, perched on the rim of a great hole in space called the Semmel Void. I found it hard to believe that there were still civilians living there who could become refugees. Even more surprising was that someone had bothered picking them up and shuttling them about five hundred lights to the Core Systems. I said as much.
“Maybe someone’s trying to clean the place up,” suggested Olbert, still scratching, dislodging bits of skin that clung to his navy blue regulation jumpsuit. His eyes looked like they were slowly trying to escape his skull, or were being squeezed out, and his face was pallid. Just the kind of guy I wanted guiding in a shuttle.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Shuttle on approach,” said a curt voice from the bridge. Ensign Tsiba, all business now that she was in the Boss’s presence. “Sixty seconds.”
“Step to it,” I ordered, pointing Olbert towards the controls. He jumped, scurried over, and I couldn’t help but step up beside him to watch. My worries were unfounded; the man might be a baby head, but he guided in the shuttle with nary a flicker, smooth as ice. I barely felt contact through the soles of my boots as the tremor ran through the Scow. “Nicely done, crewman,” I said.
“Thanks, sir,” he answered, and I thought he actually meant it for the first time.
I triggered the local com, which ran to the shuttle through the docking collar. “Shuttle, this is transport,” I said. That was what the Scow was, “LT,” which stood for Landing Transport. “We are prepared to receive passengers. Be aware, we’ll be doing a weapons check.”
“Transport, this is shuttle,” came the weary reply. I heard a baby crying in the background. “These people have been on board Ignatius for forty-two days.” Ignatius—the military transport that had ferried the refugees to Angstrom. “We’ve checked ‘em, and re-checked ‘em. They are clean.”
“So they won’t mind another check,” I said.
“Fine, transport,” said the man, defeat in every crevice of his tired voice. “I’m opening up.”
“Opening,” I said, nodding to Crewman Olbert. He triggered the airlock door, and the heavy hatch slid aside with a hiss of pressurized air escaping from the pneumatic systems.
I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. A rush of humanity, a clamor of voices, laughter and chatter, the sound of normal people moving from one place to another. These were not normal people. They were shells. Their faces were hollowed out, not from malnutrition—they’d been fed and washed and clothed on board Ignatius—but from horror. From the things they’d seen over and over again. Stories filtered in on the newsfeeds, every so often, when someone bothered to make the run out to Grosset.
There was no one over ten, or under maybe sixty. It was hard to tell, since I had no idea if Grosset had Lazarus tech, the kind of life-extending treatments that were common in the Core. My guess would be not. The baby was in the arms of a girl no older than eight, and her face, blank, washed clean of every shred of love and decency she’d ever known. . . . It nearly made me weep. Only her hands revealed something, some urge to comfort the child she held that was wired into her very core, and not yet destroyed by the things she’d seen.
“They’re clean,” I said, turning to Olbert. He looked nearly as shocked as I felt, just for a moment free of the baby’s breath, seeing the world as it really was. He’d probably forget it later. I hoped to hell that I would. I could already envision the bottle of scotch in my locker, could almost taste it on my tongue.
“This way, everyone,” I said, raising my voice though it was hardly necessary. They were all quiet, none of them speaking. The head doctors would have a lot of business with these folks, that was certain. I led them through the hatch, back into that narrow corridor, trusting that Olbert would keep an eye on them, make sure no one fell behind. It was only a few meters until we turned and went through another hatch, into Hold 2, where Kabo Regontse was waiting for us. The Scow had little to offer these people, but they’d only be with us for a day or two, ferrying back to Angstrom.
I watched Regontse’s face as he stepped aside to let the refugees file into the hold. Kabo was black as night, but he still looked pale, as if the whites of his wide eyes were somehow bleeding onto his face. And then I heard the Commander.
“What the fuck’s this rabble doing here?” he spat. “Brenner!”
“Sir!” I called out from inside the hold. There simply wasn’t room for me to get to him, not through the press of refugees. M’Ba didn’t let that stop him; he pushed aside an old woman, knocking her into the bulkhead, and was about to shove the little girl, the one carrying the baby, when one of the men, had to be over eighty if he was a day old, reached out and caught the commander’s wrist.
“Careful, sir,” the old man said, pointing at the little girl. “She’s got a child, a baby.”
M’Ba reacted just as I would have suspected, spinning around and slamming the flat of his hand against the old man’s face. The old man staggered backwards with a cry, and would have fallen if the corridor hadn’t been so narrow. The little girl suddenly cried out, her eyes wide, a sudden flush of color coming to her face.
“Do something,” hissed Regontse in my ear.
“Quiet!” roared M’Ba, and again his hand lashed out, this time catching the little girl, knocking her sideways. She bounced off the bulkhead, and then things seemed to happen so much faster, and all at once.
A woman screamed, caught the baby as it fell from the girl’s limp hands, but no one caught the girl and she toppled face-first to the deck, and suddenly the old man was surging forward, a hoarse cry on his lips, a look of rage on his face so terrifying that I couldn’t look, but I was moving now, finally, too late, pushing my way through the crowd towards the commander. And the old man slammed into M’Ba, drove him against the bulkhead with a solid thud! but M’Ba was not an old man, nor a little girl. He was tall, powerfully built, spent all his free time in the gym.
The corridor was too narrow, too packed with bodies, more of them screaming now, and I forced my body through, shouting, “Commander!” and “Sir!” but M’Ba didn’t hear me, or he ignored me. He took the old man’s hands off his neck, straightened out the old man’s arms, and then butted his head against the old man’s. Blood splattered on the bulkheads, on the deck, on the refugees, still packed in like cattle. The old man screamed, but I saw his eyes. That was no scream of fear, no scream of pain. It was pure rage, built up over months, years, decades of suffering and horror. He’d come with these people to a better place, where they would be safe.
“Commander!” I roared.
M’Ba pivoted, drove a fist into the old man’s side. Another fist. The old man fell. M’Ba reeled back and kicked him, slammed his hard boot into his side. I heard bones shatter, heard the old man scream again. Another kick, and another, and now more blood was staining the deck. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I realized I wasn’t pushing anymore. I was standing in silence, like the rest of them, watching the scene unfold. Another kick. The old man didn’t respond, didn’t move.
M’Ba was breathing hard, his face flushed with exertion, his eyes wide, and he looked around him, saw the refugees staring at him, some of them crying, others stone-still. He saw me, just two meters away, Regontse somewhere behind me. Then, he leaned over, touching his chest, then the body, and when he came up he had a knife in his hand. His knife. No one doubted it for a moment.
“I told you to check them for weapons, Lieutenant,” he growled, his breathing slowing. “Old bastard tried to knife me.”
That was the moment. I should have said, right then, “No sir, you killed him for nothing, for touching your hand.” Months later, that’s what I said at the court martial, but it was too late then. Enough time had passed, M’Ba had moved up in the world, had finally gotten that promotion he was striving for. He knew the right people and I knew no one.
“Sir,” I said, instead. “I must have missed it, sir.”
And the old woman, the one who knelt on the floor, the little girl’s head cradled in her lap, the baby, silent, in her arms, stared up at me, and I met her eyes. She didn’t look angry; perhaps all capacity for anger or fear had been beaten out of her, these long years. She just looked sad, and I knew in that moment that it was me she pitied. She saw that I’d just turned the corner, though I was only dimly aware of it.
That was the moment. When I joined the rebellion, when I threw aside the oaths I had taken, forsook them for new fealty, I remembered that old woman, though I did not know her name.
Maybe one day, she won’t feel sad for me anymore.